Mavis Gallant (RIP): Author, Storyteller, Trailblazer

mavis gallantAuthor, Mavis Gallant, passed away at age 91 yesterday. Born in Canada, she decided, very early on, that she wanted to do two things: live in Paris and earn a living from writing. She managed both of those in trailblazing ways and in the face of many obstacles for a woman of her time.

Her stories are sharply-observant, unsentimental and, definitely, ahead of her times. She had inspired many writers, particularly those who have also focused on themes of displacement, like Michael Ondaatje and Jhumpa Lahiri. Gallant’s death is a great loss to the literary world, even though she was rather under-appreciated by the wider reading public throughout most of her life.

As a struggling writer in Paris, she was penniless when she discovered that her agent had sold her stories to the New Yorker but not given her a cent of that money. And, even though she called him and tried to find out how much she was owed, he did not do the right thing. Eventually, the New Yorker worked with her directly, particularly, one of her greatest supporters there, William Maxwell, the famed editor at the time.

Obituaries/Tributes

The NYT obituary

… (her stories) became familiar to readers for their embrace of life’s paradoxes: They could be tender yet cruel, tragic yet funny. Told in exquisite detail, they are threaded with ironies and reveal lives with enough subtexts, histories and thwarted dreams to inspire novels.”

“She has quite deliberately chosen to have neither husband nor children, those two great deterrents to any woman’s attempt to live by and for writing,” the novelist and poet Janice Kulyk Keefer wrote in a critical study.

And this: “I can’t imagine writing anything that doesn’t have humor,” Ms. Gallant once said. “Look at the fits of laughter that you get at a funeral, at a wake. It’s emotion, and in a way it’s relief that you’re alive.”

The Globe and Mail’s obituary

Ms. Gallant had a journalist’s nose, a cinematographer’s eye and a novelist’s imagination. She combined her technical skills and sensory perceptions in the shrewdly observed and multilayered short story, a form she made her own. She was a specialist in writing about outsiders trying to insinuate themselves into alien situations and cultures, and her narratives move in waves of dialogue, observation and lashing tension. Reading her stories gives one a sense of a clock ticking, a door creaking open, or of an emotional wound about to be inflicted.

“Her Europe is a place of ‘shipwrecks,’ ” according to writer Michael Ondaatje, who edited an anthology of her Paris stories, full of characters who are “permanent wanderers, though a nomadic fate was not part of their original intent. With no land to light on, they look back without nostalgia, and look forward with a frayed hope.”

He described her stories as “cubist in their angles and qualifications,” and her narrators as giving the impression of “being attached, lazily, almost accidentally, like a burr, to some character – an Italian servant perhaps, a tax consultant, an art dealer.”

— CBC with 10 amazing facts about Mavis Gallant

“I never asked for help. I didn’t even show my friends what I was doing,” she once told a reporter. In fact, she only had two words of wisdom of aspiring short story writers: read Chekhov. “Anybody who has the English language and doesn’t read the wonderful translations of Chekhov is an idiot.”

— Reactions from the literary world

Mavis Gallant’s stories are almost astringent in their waking up of the reader. I feel an intense gratitude – and joy – for her unerring acuity and concision; absolute and breathtaking. She understood, in all its subtlety, the crucial distinction between making judgements and being judgmental. In this way, her stories were fearless. Her sly humour, her authority, her perception – all hewn from a clear acceptance of human frailty. Mavis was, simply, brilliant. (Anne Michaels, poet and novelist)

— (added on February 20, 2014) Jhumpa Lahiri’s tribute

In her essay “What Is Style,” she writes, “Literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death.” I have thought often and hard about this statement. It seemed at first a sweeping declaration, somewhat opaque. But over time this observation has grown specific, profound, startling in its significance. Stories were her means of survival. She belonged to them and nothing else. The defiant choice she made, to live as an expatriate, without family, and solely by means of her writing, was and remains a revolutionary act. Both in life and on the page, she blazed a trail no one since has dared follow.

— Flavorwire’s appreciation of Mavis Gallant

Even if you don’t connect with her on the level of nationality, Gallant was documenting the practice of young people drafting lives in cities long before Lena Dunham was a sparkle in anyone’s eye.

Paris Review tribute (by family friend, Adam Leith Gollner)

Mavis seemed genuinely curious about my quest for fruits. I was en route to the Seychelles, once thought to be the literal site of the Garden of Eden. She spoke of how wonderful it would be if paradise turned out to be real, if we could taste its fruits in this lifetime. “Imagine?” she said. We both did so for a moment, and I wished I could see what she was seeing.

Interviews

The Paris Review interview (1999)

A journalism student in Germany once told me she was bothered by the fact that the most plain and simple and ordinary news stories could conceal an important falsehood. She gave me an example, say, a couple celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary. They will sit holding hands for the photographer and they’ve had their ups and downs over the years, but the marriage has been a happy one. The reporter can only repeat what they say. But what if the truth is that they positively hate each other? In that case the whole interview is a lie. I told her that if she wanted to publish the lie perceived behind the interview, she had to write fiction. (She became a critic, by the way.)

CBC Audio – The Four Seasons of Mavis Gallant

— Video of Gallant and Lahiri in Q & A

Gallant’s Writing

— Writing in the New Yorker

Brief video of Gallant talking about how the short story comes about for her

Margaret Atwood reading a Gallant story ‘Voices Lost in Snow’

— Antonya Nelson reading a Gallant story ‘When We Were Nearly Young’

Most Recommended Books:

Paris Stories (NYRB Classics) selected and introduced by Michael Ondaatje

The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories (NYRB Classics) selected and introduced by Jhumpa Lahiri

Varieties of Exile (NYRB Classics) selected and introduced by Russell Banks

Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews

Let’s end with a quote of hers:

Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.

~ From ‘Paris Stories (NYRB Classics)

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